A Trip to Central Europe in Search Of Old-School Tradition Leads to a Hairy Situation
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 219 (July 2014).
We stood outside a door made from rough, dark wood, strapped in black iron. It was curved like a church door, and dreads of ivy grew about it. It had three big keyholes, and looked unbreakable.
The door lay at the shadowed end of a gnarled alleyway, invisible from the street, but just where the innkeeper had told us to look.
As I stared at it, I felt intoxicated by the liquor we had just drunk. We stood unsure of ourselves.
“Something tells me this is the one, Brother Grimm. On you go.”
Ansel had taken to calling me Brother Grimm on this holiday. He could tell I didn’t like it. I also didn’t want to knock. I wanted to leave.
My comrade Ansel and I were in one of the world’s most profoundly historic climbing areas. The Elbesandsteingebirge flanks Europe’s mighty River Elbe as it passes through its German leg. As the old river swaggered through sandstone terrain, it hewed a unique landscape, leaving an army of pinnacles and towers along the massifs from which they were cleft.
These rocks have provided 150 years of climbing and they rise in their parallel thousands, huge boners attesting to the skill and nerve of the men who first scaled them: the American climber Oliver Perry-Smith and his friends. These hell-bent crackpots took nature on full-bore and sought to tame it the way they tamed broncos. Five-nine with huge runouts in 1909. Such aplomb! Later, in the 1970s, a local climber, Bernd Arnold, pushed it out even further and produced what may have been the hardest pitches in the world.
These performances are all the more surprising when you take the area’s ethic into account. From the start, any metal protection was verboten. No pegs; no nuts or cams. Only knots, jammed into fissures, were allowed. Bolts were used—but no closer than 15 feet apart; further if possible. Chalk was banned before it was ever invented. Many people climbed mainly barefoot. The incredible staunch ethics endure today.
So there you are. It’s the sort of place you should have the sense not to go. On a May afternoon Ansel and I arrived in the area ready for some ethical escapades.
“Got the knotted slings ready, Ansel. Let’s get mediaeval.”
It’s lucky we didn’t have a plan, though, because things wouldn’t have followed it. We had bought the guidebook from a local climbing shop and, as a means of getting lost, it had few peers. It was very thick, and made of very thin paper. It could have been the Gideon Guidebook. If someone told me that it detailed a million routes I wouldn’t have been surprised. Huge amounts of Germany were covered in one small map near the start. On the first day we took it in hand and wandered off toward the trees to try to find a cliff we had selected.
Some time and much walking passed. We always had the sense of the cliff looming just above us, beyond the canopy of the ancient coniferous forest. The day marched on and in time we noticed the sun’s rays were slanting low through the branches. The darkening woods began to seem spooky and we were a bit lost. We legged it on our best bearing and were glad to pop out by an old inn. A man in a white apron greeted us:
“Zwei Bier, mein Herr,” I demanded, and we slaked the day’s toil away with golden German lager. The ensuing conversation was in German, his a lot better than mine:
“Visitors?” the innkeeper asked. “I hope you had a good day in the forest.”
“Not really, sir,” I said. “We mainly just wandered around lost. We were looking for the climbing.” I showed him our book.
He sat down and pointed out where we were, where we’d come from and how to get to our intended cliff. He was very helpful and it all made sense. We were his last customers and as we were packing our things he gave us two glasses of thick red liquor.
“Spezialwein. On my house. Prost!” “Ah, danke. Prost!”
Next day, armed with our knowledge, we returned and found the cliff. However, here the guidebook stepped its confusion up a gear. On a page no bigger than a Sierra Blair-Coyle outfit was a top-down topo of a complex multi-layered tower system containing the location of no less than 324 climbs. I looked at Ansel in confusion.
“What about the descriptions, Brother Grimm?” he asked.
I chose one at random and read it out.
“Ringparbel Xa; Bernd Arnold, G Lamm, 16.6.85 – 7 m li. von ‘Ostriss’ uberh. Wand (R) zu 2. R. Weiter rechtsh. zu 3 R u. Wand linksh. (4. R) zu 5. (R. Mulden zu gr. Abs. Li,. Rinne (7. R) zu Pfeiler auf Terrasse ‘Birkenriss’ zG.”
Having no idea of what route we were on, we chose an easy-looking arête. Ansel set off with a bunch of quickdraws and a dozen knotted slings—all the same size—and arrived on the summit without incident. I followed.
The climb was easy but mundane, although the scene from the summit was breathtaking. The world stretched away carpeted in forest as far as one could see. I had never seen so many trees. The forest must have stretched to the Czech, to Romania, to Hungary, to Transylvania. I imagined bears and wolves and tribes of undiscovered men all lost within it.
We rapped off, mesmerized. A huge black steep wall beckoned. I set off heading for a bolt I had spotted at 40 feet. The wall was in the sun and my chalkless hands greased around on the dark stone. I passed Stopper-friendly slots and cracks but they rejected my slung knots. I had no sense of where I was going and the bolt seemed to be getting no closer. Eventually the stress became too much and I down climbed timidly. I sat at the base in a grump and eventually we strolled homewards, via, once more, the inn, some beer, and a glass of Spezialwein. Prost.
Next day, once more we tried and failed to squeeze some information from the book. We had hoped to meet other climbers and ask for help. Though from time to time I thought I heard voices or scurrying in the undergrowth, no one would appear. It was as if the old ethics had sucked the lifeblood out of the climbing scene and left it dead. But no worry. I was determined to get up the black wall.
I tied in, looked around and from my rucksack pulled a brimful chalk bag. Ansel and I looked at each other conspiratorially.
“If you see someone coming, shout, ‘Armageddon!’” I told him.
I set off, feeling more secure with chalky hands now, aiming for what looked like a bolt at 40 feet. When I passed one of the cracks I’d seen the day before, I pulled a metal Stopper from my trouser pocket and slotted it happily in. My actions felt incredibly naughty.
I approached the bolt, a huge ancient ring of a thing, feeling chalked, protected and confident. I took a quickdraw and clipped it, and no sooner had I done that than all my confidence disappeared. Above was a sea of black rock. Where was the next bolt? Where did the route go from here? I felt cold and alone. I felt that I didn’t belong here all of a sudden, and that we had better get away from that wall. It had turned hostile. I threaded the bolt and rapped off. We packed and scurried down through darkening woods, relieved to emerge at the inn.
“Zwei Bier, mein Herr.”
We felt defeated and deflated. We drank more beer, then more, and hinted at our misfortunes to the barman.
“We don’t understand the climbing here.”
“No? Well, perhaps there is someone who can help. He knows many answers about these areas. I will show you where he lives.”
With that he penciled on the back of a beer mat the directions to a house.
He pressed two of the large red draughts into our hands as usual and bid us on our way.
From the inside of the door came the sound of sliding metal catches. The door creaked open, revealing a man dressed in black. He had long curling hair, a bit bald on top, and a biker moustache; wore a black skull T-shirt, a studded leather belt and, oddly, big bedroom slippers that looked like bears’ feet. He reminded me of Lemmie from the band Motörhead.
“Kletterer,” I said, pointing at myself. Climber.
“You are familiar with the cliffs here?” I asked in my rudimentary German, with a nod toward the cliffs above.
“Ja.” He nodded defiantly.
“The innkeeper said you might have some answers,” I replied, holding up our guidebook like a flag of surrender, then wriggling it to add some theater to the explanation.
He eyed me, the book and Ansel, then, with a flutter of his hand, beckoned us into the sepulchral interior of his home. I crouched along a corridor and stood up again in a marvelous, curious room: quite dark, despite the brightness outside.
It seemed almost like a museum—to what, I don’t know. There were obvious climbing artifacts: many photos of old-timers on the rocks, oval-shaped carabiners, loops of webbing, twists of old rope, long-handled hammers and lengthy metal spikes. But other things besides: glass jars and flasks, some containing pickled lumps. A bearskin. A leather collar with spikes. Chains. Lots of old leather-bound volumes. Religious icons. A stuffed raven.
“Ah, I see you are a historian,” I said.
“No,” he corrected. “I am a woodcutter.”
He lifted a huge axe from behind his desk and held it in both hands. It was a heavy, powerful- looking tool and the light of a small lamp on the wall glinted off its blade. It felt like an awkward moment so to move the visit along I pointed to one of his climbing photos.
“Quite a technique these boys had.”
The image showed three men lashed to a rock face. One was belayed to a bolt. Another stood barefoot on the belayer’s shoulders, and a third balanced on him again, one foot on the second man’s shoulder and another on his head. He was an inch short of a jug and looked about to step two-footed onto the crown of his partner’s head to attain it. The enterprise had the whiff of multiple deaths about it.
“It looks a bit dangerous to me,” Ansel said.
“Ach!” Lemmie spat. “These days everyone avoids danger. They fear death. It’s not the old way. These men …” He pointed at the photo. “These men would die for what they held true. They had beliefs. Now people only have wants.”
He’s taking this a bit seriously, I thought. In the awkward silence, he put the axe away behind his desk.
“Forgive me, how can I help you?”
I held up the guidebook, determined not to say anything to upset him further.
Ansel interjected: “We want to work out where we are in this stupid book. It’s impossible to find anything unless you’re some sort of code breaker. It’s been written by an idiot. I think the author must want nobody to come here and if they do happen to, the last thing they want is for them to enjoy themselves. All the visitors probably get on the wrong route and fall off and kill themselves. No wonder we don’t meet anyone. It’s not exactly a tourist brochure, is it?”
“And you think popularity is everything? What about tradition?”
“I love tradition,” I piped up. “But think how nice tradition would be with a few extra bolts and a bright select guide to the area with good maps and detailed photo-topos. Perhaps an indication of how scary or sustained something is, along with a suggested rack? That would really open the area up.”
“Noooo! Not more people,” Lemmie snarled in frustration.
Then I noticed a funny thing. In common with a lot of balding men with long hair, he had a hairy body. As he lost his temper in his front room, I was sure I noticed the hair getting longer. Tufts of it bulged under his T-shirt.
“I have seen it. Westerners come here. Sport climbers. Frankenjurans. French. They see our cliffs and they like them. They see our ethics and they fear them, disrespect them.”
He waved his arms and turned his angry eyes toward the ceiling. The hair was starting to tumble from the collar of his T-shirt and, even more disturbing, something had popped out of the back of his stonewashed jeans. A brown furry point. It grew upwards from the waist, soon reaching the middle of his back. It was a tail. Lemmie had a fucking tail!
“Foreigners will come and they will change things. They will take away the adventure. They will destroy the rock I love.” Blobs of spit flew from his teeth.
“They will use chalk and the unknown will disappear forever.” He held his hands in the air, beseeching spirits. They were very big hands.
I looked down at my own hands. I had forgotten to clean off the chalk and it was still lingering clearly around my fingernails.
“Oh, look, is that the time?” I said. “Come on, Ansel, we ought to be getting back … Armageddon!”
I dashed to the door and had just managed to get my chalky hand around the handle when a huge furry claw covered it, stopping me.
“Do I see something white on your hands?”
I felt his breath hot on the back of my neck, and turned nervously around.
“My, my, Lemmie,” I stuttered. “What big teeth you have!”
Two hundred feet up the alleyway the barman was tidying tables in the last of the evening sun. Then he heard it: a long agonized scream, then another, and silence. He shuddered. He knew it was wrong, that he should not have any part in this, and it would need to end. But still, he thought: Traditions are traditions. And tonight they would dine on Menschenfleisch.
Niall Grimes would like to point out that not everything in this story is true, especially if any ethically minded Germans are reading this.
An excerpt from Mick Fowler’s upcoming memoir No Easy Way, available October 4, 2018.read more